Laslo Boyd: The Great Debate in the Rearview Mirror

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By: Laslo Boyd 

Someone reminded me last week of the old saying that watching a political debate is a bit like watching a NASCAR race.  Everyone is watching to see if there will be a crash.  None of the candidates crashed in their first televised debate last Wednesday night. 

Similarly, if you evaluate the event in terms of its impact on the horserace — Is anyone keeping track of metaphors? — it’s doubtful that the debate resulted in any major reordering. 

The format which, as Moderator David Gregory kept reminding everyone was determined by the candidates, was designed to avoid too much exposure for the combatants.   That format allowed the candidates to recite talking points, refer to “having a plan to…” and speak in broad generalities.

The questions from the panel didn’t help either, as they totally bypassed the most important issues facing Maryland. 

Where were the questions about the state budget deficit, or the fate of the Chesapeake Bay and other environmental issues such as the future of fracking in the state, or the loss of control over the Baltimore City Jail, or the challenges of investing in the state’s infrastructure?  Higher education received no attention, and K-12 not much more.

Instead, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, Attorney General Doug Gansler, and Del. Heather Mizeur were asked about whether the name “Washington Redskins” should be replaced, but not whether any of them attend games of that team.  There was another question about school construction dollars for Montgomery County that all but begged the candidates to pander to voters of that jurisdiction. 

Channel 4 reporter Chris Gordon, who at times seemed to think he was the main attraction, asked a convoluted question that supposedly was intended to probe the candidates’ characters, but really was only focused on Gansler’s infamous beach party photo. Brown totally ignored the part of that inquiry about his role in the state’s health care rollout. Mizeur had the easiest time of the three, given the opportunity to tout her experience.

Still, as University of Maryland President Wallace Loh said in welcoming the audience to the campus, a debate is also a classroom.  At the end of the hour, we had learned more about the candidates regardless of the impact of that knowledge on the campaign itself.  I can offer comments on what I noticed, but I cannot assess the reaction of someone who just became aware of the upcoming primary and then watched the debate.

Mizeur distinguished herself both in terms of her grasp of issues and of her positions.  For example, she’s the only one in favor of legalization of marijuana now and of requiring that a “living wage” be paid to workers. 

I had been told by her supporters that at her events she is both inspirational and energized.  Yet she was neither on Wednesday night, instead seeming fairly flat in her presentation.  In her determination to stay above the sparring between Brown and Gansler, she seemed to dial herself back too far.  Despite her qualifications, it’s looking more and more like her best shot at winning is that voters come to dislike both the other candidates enough to swing their votes to her. 

Gansler is clearly not going to get out from under the beach party photo, though he did make his best effort so far to address the issue.  In talking about the challenges of parenting and acknowledging that he could have made a different decision that night, he succeeded in humanizing his reaction in a way that his previous comments have failed to do.

In both his opening statement and his responses to questions, the Attorney General focused primarily on his record in office.  He explicitly presented himself as a fighter for important causes.   And, even as he continued to go after Brown for the Lieutenant Governor’s role in the health care site fiasco, Gansler avoided the heated rhetoric and incautious remarks that have sometimes characterized his statements.

Gansler’s chances in the June 24 Primary depend on reaching a significant portion of the still-undecided voters.  He will need television ads that challenge Brown’s leadership while reassuring those same voters that he will be a steady and reliable fighter for them. 

Brown, as the presumed front-runner, largely adopted the safe strategy that you might have expected.  The one surprise was that he went after Gansler early and often, apparently believing that a good offense is the best defense.

The Lieutenant Governor demonstrated a command of the accomplishments of the O’Malley Administration and cited a number of his plans to build on those efforts.  For viewers who had not heard him before, he came across as articulate and poised.

However, he continued to duck the question of his responsibility for the state’s health care web site problems.  He reused the weak excuse that “everyone involved in the Health Benefit Exchange is responsible, and that includes me.”  That’s not exactly the kind of leadership you expect from the state’s “point person” on health care.  His regret that people were inconvenienced probably won’t win him any points either.

Brown also showed a tendency to use exaggerated and hyperbolic rhetoric.  Talking about the beach party incident involving “literally hundreds of teenagers underage drinking,” Brown asserted that he “would have stopped the party and made sure every child got home safely.”  Hard to imagine and just a bit too heroic for reality.

In another question about the state’s business climate — an area that cried out for more follow-up — Brown told the audience that he has a “proposal to position Maryland as the most competitive business climate state in the nation.”  Whatever you think of the current environment for business in Maryland, that seems like quite a stretch.

Let me offer one final observation from the debate.  Most commentary on the election thus far has concluded that Brown’s advantages result from three key areas: being African-American in a state where that group constitutes a large percentage of the Democratic primary turnout; having a base in Prince George’s County; and being a military veteran.  

If he wins the primary, I don’t think any of those will be the paramount reason.  As his comments at the debate demonstrated, he is wrapping himself fully in the mantle of the accomplishments of Gov. Martin O’Malley.  And unlike previous times when voters had tired of the incumbent after eight years, O’Malley is still incredibly popular among Maryland Democrats.  Brown’s principal appeal in this primary is his promise to maintain the direction set by his predecessor.

It would certainly have been interesting if one of the panelists had asked the candidates how their approach to governing was going to be different from O’Malley’s.  You can definitely count on that question being raised in the fall by the Republican candidate.

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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.